Master of wine vs. Master sommelier: What’s the difference?

Wine is a massive and decidedly complex industry and, as steel wine drum manufacturers, Skolnik’s role in it skews more industrial and utilitarian. But wine is more than an industry or a business. Wine is artistic, historical, anthropological. Wine is a subject matter that some study their whole lives.

The title of sommelier is undoubtedly a familiar one. Someone who can guide both a restaurant and its guests through the wine selection process is invaluable. You might recognize the title Master sommelier as well. Master of wine, however, is a title less often used in conversation. Though these designations sound synonymous, they are actually two separate certifications. For those curious, here is a brief explanation of how the two titles compare and contrast:

The Master Sommelier

Anyone can claim the title of sommelier based on their experience working in restaurants, but there are a variety of certifications available for those who would like to make their status official. Among the organizations that offer certifications is the British-based Court of Master Sommeliers. As their name suggests, this is independent examining body bestows the Master Sommelier Diploma. One must work through the Court’s introductory and advance courses, along with passing preliminary examinations before qualifying for the final exam. At each stage, a candidate is tested on theoretical knowledge, practical tasting and practical service.

The Master of Wine

Another British-based organization with a similarly intuitive name is the Institute of Masters of Wine. This group bestows the Master of Wine certification.

While the Master sommelier program only requires days of in-person class work, the Master of wine has three years of self-driven courses that include multiple essays topics such as the production and handling of wine, the business of wine, and contemporary issues. The program then culminates in a 6,000-10,000 word research paper based on original research.

With this research-driven program, a Master of wine reflects a wealth of academic knowledge, while the Master sommelier reflects a more practical one. While you need a deep understanding of all things wine as a sommelier, a Master of wine has taken that pursuit of knowledge much farther. Conversely, while both certifications require an ability to speak eloquently, a crucial component of the Master sommelier tests is the candidate’s skill as a salesperson.

Let’s raise a glass to the masters.

Regardless of certification, to become a Master in the wine world requires years of dedication, passion, and hard work. There are currently only 355 Masters of wine, 240 Master sommeliers, and only 4 people in the world who hold both. In a 2010 interview with Gerard Basset, one of these select few that hold both positions, he lists just a sampling of the extensive information he was required to know about the region of Mosel, in Germany for his Master sommelier exams:

  • Knowledge of Mosel history, geography, soil and climate
  • Memorization of winemaking villages and vineyards
  • General attributes of Riesling wines from important sites
  • Understanding of winemaking techniques and effects of botrytis
  • Knowing organoleptic differences in kabinett, spätlese, auslese, BA, TBA, trocken, halbtrocken and grosses gewächs Rieslings
  • Identification of Goldkapsel wines
  • Solid understanding of German wine law and minimum mustweight requirements
  • Solid understanding of the VDP wine association, including both pre- and post-2012 terminology (grosses gewächs, grosse lage, etc), minimum ageing recommendations, yields, sugar levels, etc
  • Familiarity with top producers and their individual styles: JJ Prüm, Egon Müller, Zilliken, Dr Loosen, Karthäuserhof, etc
  • Understanding of vintage character from the 1970s to the present
  • General familiarity with German terminology, from einzellage (vineyard site) to anreicherung (chaptalisation)

He then adds, “Multiply the above by 13 – the number of German anbaugebiete (winegrowing regions) – and repeat for every major winemaking country in the world. Devote similar attention to spirits, beers and saké, and you will be in good shape for the Master Sommelier exam.”

So, no matter the title, if anyone ever tells you they are a Master anything to do with wine, you can trust they know what they’re talking about.